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Interview: Jeff Connor

7435_wide-eyed-and-legless_mediumHaving spent the last few days looking at the story of the ANC-Halfords team and the book written about their 1987 Tour de France - Wide-Eyed and Legless - let's turn to the man who became Nick Carraway to Tony Capper's Jay Gatsby: Jeff Connor.

Podium Café: How did the opportunity to spend three weeks embedded with a cycling team on the 1987 Tour de France come about? You were writing for the Daily Star at the time, which sponsored the Milk Race, but it's a hell of a jump up from that to covering the Tour de France.

Jeff Connor: I was actually a sub in the eighties and I did little writing at the time so it was indeed a hell of a jump.

But there again nothing took anyone by surprise at The Star in those days. The sports staff were big into Gonzo style journalism. I think they had read some of the George Plimpton books and thought that was a good idea for Star staff.

One of the other subs, a good amateur cricketer, once agreed to take an over from Michael 'Whispering Death' Holding - at the time with Lancashire - in  the cause of getting a few papers sold and I once played against basketball superstar Alton Byrd for the same reason.

Personally, I think I would have preferred to have spent a week or so on the Tour de France than lose my teeth against Holding or made a fool of by Byrd.

PdC: There is a sense that the 1987 Tour was too much too soon for the ANC-Halfords riders, and for Capper and his directeur sportif, Phil Griffiths also. Would you apply that to yourself too?

JC: Knowing little about cycling I just assumed that all the ANC staff and players were in the same class as all the other Tour teams. I thought winning the Milk Race or the Kellogg's Tour was as good as you can get, although it only took me a day to work out that they were heading for a tough time.

I had a lot to learn, too. All my copy was done on a sheet of A4 paper with a biro and then phoned to Manchester. But after that it was quite easy. I stayed in twenty-one different hotels over twenty-eight days in a room of my own and all had  been booked for me in advance and ANC looked after all my food and drink. During the first two weeks someone else did all the driving while I sat in the back seat and looked at the views.

All tabloids as you know like their quotes and many of the quotes were supplied by the Tour de France chefs de presse. So definitely not too much too soon!

PdC: Your editor at the Star knew so little about cycling that he thought you could simply slip into the peloton on your own bike one day and report on proceedings from within.

JC: I was talking to Peter Oakes, the sports editor at the time, a couple of weeks ago and yes indeed the idea was that I would grab a bike, put on some gear, and line up alongside the likes of Stephen Roche and Laurent Fignon.

I don't think they thought I could kick their asses, but (and this is how naïve we were) they thought that because I was a 'professional' fell runner I was just as fit as any cyclist. No-one pointed out that at the time I was forty-one, smoked and drank and the only reason I was called a 'professional' was because I had been banned from amateur racing for winning a quid at my local fell race in Eskdale, Cumbria.

I also liked to point out that I was the  over-forties pro champion - even though there were only four of us!

PdC: How often, during the Tour, did you get asked why the African National Congress was sponsoring a British team in the Tour de France?

JC: I never thought of that one until a Dutch journalist was driving past Capper one day and it was his idea of taking the piss.

Like almost everyone else, Capper hadn't a clue what the African National Congress and Nelson Mandela was and probably thought Nelson was the guy who was killed at Trafalgar.

PdC: What do you think of the general portrayal of Tony Capper in the British sports' media? He always seems to be presented as a bit of an Arthur Daley type, a wideboy, a lovable rogue. Personally, I find that portrayal odd when you consider the reckless way he ran the team - blowing all the budget before the Milk Race - and then, even as his riders went unpaid, putting in his own claim for fifty grand against the failed company.

JC: If you were writing a book about the Tour Capper is definitely the man who is going to sell your book.

A loveable rogue? I would agree with that. I liked the guy a lot and even though views of anyone tend to change after almost twenty-five years, so do most of the riders.

And thinking about it he didn't do anyone any real damage. Would Griffo, Malcolm, Paul Watson and Shane Sutton have got where they are now without some help from Capper? I don't think so.

PdC: Jacques Goddet's dream of mondialisation had, by 1987, grown into a monster and the Tour de France was suffering from gigantisme. It had become too commercial. The money had become more important than the race itself. Did you ever get a chance to go back to the Tour and see it under better circumstances?

JC: I never went back to see a Tour. There were a couple of years after '87 when I watched it every day and as long as I could on telly.

I still think it is the greatest sports event ever invented but I began to lose interest when Armstrong arrived and he got his Motorola two-way radio in and started sending me to sleep.

PdC: Internally, the Société du Tour de France was in a mess at this time in its history. Between Spring 1987 and Autumn 1988 they went through three directors - first Félix Lévitan was tossed on the scrag heap, to be followed a year later by his replacement, Jean-François Naquet-Radiguet, before the man who followed both of them, Jean-Pierre Courcol, felt it necessary to fall on his own sword after the Delgado affaire. Do you think that that internal turmoil helped ANC-Halfords get in to the Tour when they clearly weren't ready? That the Tour let them in simply to help extend their product into the UK market?

JC: In my humble opinion I don't think the Société's War of the Worlds had any effect on the arrival of ANC in Berlin in '87. My view at the time and my view ever since is that the Société have always been very clever in their choice of stages and teams.

I remain convinced that the main reason ANC got in was that it was the twentieth anniversary of Tommy Simpson's death on Ventoux and the Tour of '87 happened to include Ventoux.

The Société  like their little dramas, don't you agree?

PdC: Looking at that 1987 Tour, there's probably three different stories you could tell for the Anglosphere audience: the first is the obvious one, Stephen Roche's surprising and magical season; the next is the one you do tell, the ANC-Halfords story; the third could be the 7-Eleven story. In this part of the world, Davis Phinney's victory into Bordeaux tends to get over-shadowed by either Sean Kelly's crash and withdrawal or Malcolm Elliott's third place. Dag-Otto Lauritzen won for the Americans on Luz Ardiden. And then Jeff Pierce won for them again on the Champs-Elysées. Did it ever get to a point for you of looking at them and thinking that's what ANC should have been doing?

JC: Well 7-Eleven didn't last much longer than ANC did they? Later they changed their name to Motorola and we have all heard the stories of them!

I am biased here. Like the French I hated Americans winning anything because then you have to put up with their moronic fans. A whole bunch of them turned up in our hotel in Pau after Lauritzen won at Luz Ardiden and they were insufferable, telling us all how it was done and none of them listening to a word the others were saying.

Angus Fraser, a very frightening man, got totally pissed off with them and came out with the perfect response: 'Hey, son, that  Dag-Otto Lauritzen is a fuckin' Norwegian!' 

PdC: Three riders were caught doping during the 1987 Tour, and you write a little but about how, back then, doping was a banned topic in conversation and journalists willingly became part of the conspiracy of silence. Paul Watson, who secured a ride with Hitachi for 1988, spoke a bit too freely to the Guardian's Geoffrey Beattie and ended up without a racing licence in 1989. Similarly Steve Swart has, some might argue, spoken a bit too openly about things that might or might not have happened during his time at Motorola. Angus Fraser, the team's Scottish soigneur, became the star of several doping stories. I won't ask if you thought there was any doping in ANC-Halfords in 1987. But, had they survived and returned to the Tour, do you think Capper would have been the pragmatic type and simply adapted the team to the milieu they operated in?

JC: Well, maybe you will need your lawyer for this one!

I was staggered when the doping stories came out in the 1987 Tour and most people just ignored it. One of them was a German if I remember [Dietrich Thurau] and there was an Italian [Silvano Contini]. The biggest name was another Italian, Guido Bontempi, who was in Roche's Carrera team. I think it got one hundred words on page five of l'Équipe,  which just about says it all.

As for ANC, I believe anything that Paul Watson and Steve Swart had to say. I trusted them both. Swart had absolutely no reason to spill the beans on Armstrong. He had no reason (money or writing a book or getting paid by David Walsh for his book) for 'speaking too openly.' I think that guy from Big Brother had got Paul pissed somewhere and basically Paul got screwed.

As for Capper, he didn't suggest at any stage in '87 that any of his 'boys' should win him a stage by doping. I think Capper, despite his foibles, would definitely draw the line there.

PdC: Malcolm Elliott's post-ANC year at Fagor was, to say the least, troubled, with Stephen Roche's attempt to build a British and Irish team - himself, Malcolm Elliott, Robert Millar, Sean Yates - failing miserably. More than a dozen years after ANC-Halfords, Adrian Timmis was one of the soigneurs on the ill-fated Linda McCartney Pro Cycling Team. When you saw than Shane Sutton was going to be part of Team Sky ... did you even for a moment feel scared that there might be a jinx on all the ANC-Halfords graduates?

JC: I think every pro cyclist who has ever lived has had problems with companies like ANC going bust when payday for a rider is due don't you agree?

Malcolm has suffered as much as anyone but you can't say he has had a jinx following him through life post ANC. He lives in a beautiful house in Sheffield, has a beautiful wife and two beautiful daughters so Malcolm sure gets by!

Paul Watson will certainly never be short of food, Shane is one of the sport's most revered coaches, Bernard Chesneau has a top job with Coca Cola, Swart runs his own building company in Christchurch, Graham Jones is a classy TV and radio commentator  and Adrian seems perfectly happy with life.

As for Griffo he now has more posh cars than Nick Mason!

Wideyedandlegless1988_mediumPdC: How do you feel about the way the British cycling community has taken Wide-Eyed and Legless to its heart? Have you been aware of how much love there is for your book? Being out of print only seems to have increased its popularity.

JC: Obviously I was delighted. It was my first book and it was well received by a community who strictly speaking could have turned round and said (quite correctly) that this guy knows nothing about our sport.

And, as any writer will tell you, I look back now and think I could have done a better job. Simon and Schuster gave me a month to supply the written version and when I got back from the Tour to Cumbria my house had burned down!

Simon and Schuster also lost interest in it from the start and I think they only produced a thousand copies and never did a reprint. Little wonder it was hard to get hold of!

PdC: Wide-Eyed and Legless is now back in print - and you're working on a new ANC-based project for the twenty-fifth anniversary next year, with Lionel Birnie, yes? Anything you can tell us about that now? Did you finally catch up with Tony Capper and get his side of the story?

JC: Lionel has been a great help with some of the interviews and I say that from the start.

I had a stroke in 2007 and basically had to begin life again, starting with the mind of a six-year-old and trying to take it from there. I can write now (I think!) but I have problems with the spoken word. I tend to forget whatever I have said within a minute or so! That was where Lionel came in.

The twenty-fifth anniversary project is called Field of Fire, based on that memorable Stage Six from Strasbourg to Epinal on July 6, 1987 when ANC were slaughtered on Le Champ du Feu.

I wanted to find out what had happened to the lives of ANC riders and staff twenty-five years on. So I  basically asked them all what their children may have asked them: 'What did you do in the Tour, daddy?'

No-one seems to know where Tony Capper is these days (and Kvetoslav Palov for that matter) although Malcolm met his son watching some race.

Sprinter_mediumPdC: As well as Wide-Eyed and Legless, you also ghosted Malcolm Elliott's autobiography, Sprinter, in 1990. The twenty years since then have been far from dull for the Sheffield sprinter - would you be interested in returning to that book too?

JC: Spot on!

I went to see Malcolm in Sheffield about a month ago and we spoke about this and that. Malcolm certainly hasn't  changed in a lot of respects - including his insistence on taking his time to make his mind up!

* * * * *

7435_wide-eyed-and-legless_mediumJeff Connor is the author of Wide-Eyed and Legless (Mainstream Publishing). He also ghost-wrote Malcolm Elliott's autobiography, Sprinter.

You'll find a review of Wide-Eyed and Legless - along with an introduction to the ANC-Halfords story - on the Café Booshelf.

Our thanks to Jeff Connor for taking the time to participate in this interview.